In case you haven’t noticed, it’s St. Padraig’s Day again, and yes, that’s how you really spell it. I know, because Grandma Mary Ellen Daly spoke the Irish until they closed the lid on her, and that’s how she spelled it on the pillows she crocheted.

So I’ve been trying to deal sanely with my Irish-ness for almost 78 years, or since I learned to walk and talk and read, and I haven’t been able to do it yet. It’s useless, of course. I embrace the idea of being Irish and hold it fast to me like an anchor, because I have no other blood in me, and without it, I would drift away into something strange and lost.

I was born and brought up in an Irish world full of old people who didn’t want to die, because they all feared they’d go to hell. It’s crazy, I know, but it’s an Irish Catholic thing. “This is one race of people,” Sigmund  Freud said, “for whom psychoanalysis is of no use whatsoever.”

It was truly a world like a green cloud or bubble where we all lived oblivious to the outside world. And in the very old days when my mother was a tall girl with green eyes always full of tears, it was called Kerry Patch, because most of the folks came from County Kerry.

It was a noisy neighborhood full of the children and grandchildren who left a greener world behind, and never looked back or cared to.

There was a church and a convent, two saloons full of functioning and non-functioning alcoholics trying to drink away the cold and then the heat, or whatever excuse they could find. There was a firehouse, police station, a grocery store and a confectionery run by my father’s cousin Rosie, who sold booze in the back room for cops on cold winter nights.

Most there, if they lived,  grew up to be cops or firemen, politicians, priests and one writer.

This all started with the early arrivals who got off the boat In Boston, a city they hated for the crowds and the stink of it, and went on down to New York and surely hated that for the same reason.

The first Devines went to Virginia and worked for the railroad, and some of them went to Indiana, and then they all fought against each other in the Civil War. Some, I suppose, killed the others.

The Conlon side went on to Pennsylvania where the five brothers went to work delivering water to the black-faced miners who spent their long days in the dark. They all grew up and bought the mines and formed the Conlon Coal Company and got rich at it, except, of course, for my grandfather Jim Conlon who wanted to be a riverboat pilot, so he went down to St. Louis and did just that. And that’s how I got there.

Jim Conlon had two daughters and made a lot of money and when their mother, a tall beautiful woman who was born deaf, died, he bought them a pony to soften the blow. The old man, known in saloon circles as “Jim the dude,” because of his colored silk shirts, finally lost his money and died broke.

In her late teens then, mother had to go to work in the office of the shirt factory, the very one that had made her father’s shirts. She never got over any of that, and when I hear the saying, “There’s no point in being Irish if you don’t know that sooner or later the world will break your heart,” I think of her crying in that office, looking out at the rain at the beauty of what used to be, through dirty windows. And that’s why Veronica Conlon found and married Lt. Matt Devine and never went back to the factory. 

These are the stories I grew up hearing from an ancient race of people afraid to die with their stories still in their mouths. Sean O’Casey was like that, and Jimmy Joyce and Yeats and Wilde.  So I’m telling mine because I’m afraid to die for the same reason. The wine is gone. Goodnight Padraig, a terrible beauty you started.

J.P. Devine is a Waterville writer.


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